Unrest and Repression in Argentina

Hernàn Camarero, Pablo Pozzi, and Alejandro Schneider

[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 25, Summer 1998]

Hernàn Camarero, Pablo Pozzi, and Alejandro Schneider are all historians teaching at the University of Buenos Aires.

ON MONDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 1998, IN USUHUAIA, ARGENTINA'S SOUTHERNMOST CITY in Tierra del Fuego, the courts finally declared the innocence of steelworker leader Oscar Martìnez. Accused of "inciting to violence", Martìnez had been blamed by the government for the April 1995 repression of a strike that resulted in one steelworker dead and dozens wounded. The prosecution had argued that Martìnez was to blame since he called on the strikers to defend themselves from the charging police. In a previous trial, in 1996, Martìnez, together with several dozen other union leaders and activists, had been sentenced to two months in prison and payment of the trial costs.

The fact that Martìnez was declared innocent was a triumph for the labor movement of Tierra del Fuego. However, this does not cloud the fact that there is something new on the Argentine horizon, as far as repression goes. Over the past two years, labor and left activists in Argentina have discovered that more than one thousand of their comrades are on trial throughout the country. This has several advantages, from the point of view of the government and big business. First, it ties up much-needed resources in the legal defense of activists. Second, it gives repression a legal mantle, thus maintaining the niceties of the formally "democratic" state. And third, it attempts to win the public opinion battle by associating violence with the left in the media. Thus, it is not the police who repress but rather the activists who cause the repression by their reprehensible behavior. In this sense, it was not an accident that Martìnez was a labor leader with a following among the rank and file, and a member of the Trotskyist Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS).

By 1996 other left labor leaders were affected by this new tactic: Alcides Christiansen, the leader of the construction workers of Neuquén, together with Horacio Panario and Basilio Estrada of the Unemployed Workers Coordinating Committee, went on trial for organizing a demonstration demanding unemployment insurance. A year later, in 1997, in the province of Còrdoba, labor leaders Luis Bazàn and Angel Tello went on trial. That same year the tactic was broadened from labor to include activists as a whole. Over two hundred people, arrested in demonstrations against President Clinton's visit to Argentina, have been tried during the past six months. Since the beginning of 1998, hundreds of activists have been charged and will be tried for organizing protests, demonstrations, or blockading highways, all constituting "violence" in the government's eyes.

All of the above has not occurred in a vacuum. The levels of repression in Argentina have increased because social unrest has also increased significantly over the past two years. This all came together early last year. In March 1997, as summer was ending, Argentina exploded in a bout of social conflict and popular upheaval that was unexpected to the average observer and lasted until October. Throughout those six months townships such as Cutral Cò and Neuquén in Patagonia, Tartagal and Jujuy in the Northwest rioted, and La Plata and Buenos Aires on the coast. National highways were blockaded by pickets, students demonstrated and confronted the police, workers struck as did farmers, and the colla Amerindian community in Salta province besieged a huge tract of land bought by a U.S. corporation. Incredibly enough, while all of this was going on, foreign capital flow into Argentina was at a record high, and President Carlos Menem spent more time traveling than dealing with social unrest. It was emblematic that, visiting Argentina in October 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton praised the Menem Administration while, outside, police went on a rampage beating up demonstrators and onlookers alike.

The contradiction is too flagrant to be ignored. Socially Argentina has all the characteristics of an unsafe haven for any kind of investment (whether productive or speculative), and yet it continues to grow. In a transnationalized world, local or even regional social upheaval seems to have little impact on government and investment policy. However, the puebladas such as the ones of Cutral Cò and of Tartagal had an effect on popular imagination and on the Left, which felt reinvigorated. Each new conflict helped to set off others. Innovations in modes of struggle spread from one to the next, suggesting both informal networks of communication and a willingness to confront neoconservative state policies.

Clearly the social upheavals that began in March 1997 were not the first ones of the new neoconservative Argentina. In 1989 the people in the Patagonian province of Chubut mobilized for a week to get rid of a governor. Later, in June of that year, thousands of people in Buenos Aires and Rosario rioted, sacking supermarkets and grocery stores. Over the next two years neighbors in different cities and towns took to the streets several times: in Venado Tuerto to protest the appointment of a parish priest guilty of human rights violations; in Catamarca to demand justice for a raped and murdered teenager; in the town of Pilar and in Buenos Aires Province to protest police brutality. By 1993 the riots had turned more violent, with people attacking (and burning down) the government house in Northwestern Santiago del Estero province, as well as in Jujuy, La Rioja, Chaco, Tucumàn, and Corrientes. The main characteristic of these riots was the unexpectedness, the fact that they happened quickly lasting rarely more than a day, ad left no visible forms of organization. In a sense, they were more a catharsis for accumulated anger and frustration than a new form of struggle. Though violent and pervasive, they were relatively easy to control. In all cases the Government attempted to ignore the upheaval, hoping it would die down, and when it didn't its response included repression by security forces. The result has been an increase in collective violence.

THIS LATEST BOUT OF UPHEAVAL, THOUGH IT CLEARLY HAD CONTINUITIES with the ones happening over the past eight years, was also qualitatively different. A good example of this was the conflict in Cutral Cò and Plaza Huincul, two townships in the upper Patagonian Neuquén Province, with some 55.000 inhabitants. Both of these townships were built and developed around the petroleum industry. The national petroleum company (Yacimientos Petrolìferos Fiscales: YPF) provided jobs and income in the area for over 50 years. Because of its petroleum fields, Neuquén has been a wealthy province, with high rates of employment and relatively good wages. This had attracted a lot of migrants from other provinces to the area, making the local population fairly young and with links to family networks in other areas of Argentina. YPF was privatized between 1994 and 1995, with over 80 percent of its employees being laid off as a result. By 1996, the townships had a 35.7 percent unemployment rate, and 23,500 persons were below the poverty line (INDEC, 1996). By June 1996, the local governor had failed to sign an agreement with a Canadian corporation to establish a fertilizer plant in the area, and the local population took to the streets. Local shopkeepers closed their doors, and all over the two towns barricades were set up manned by some 5,000 residents. Those people manning the barricades became known as the piqueteros (for pickets). Security forces besieged the entrenched townspeople. A week later, on June 26, a compromise had been reached with governor Felipe Sapag who promised to find a speedy solution to the unemployment problem. Over the next nine months a committee of townspeople met with the authorities, while a small subsidy was granted to 1,000 needy families in the area.

BY MARCH 1997, NO SOLUTION HAD BEEN REACHED, when the provincial teachers' union went out on strike over layoffs and salary reductions. The teachers had the support of parents, students, and the local labor movement. Their struggle included demonstrations, petitions, lobbying, and blocking a bridge on highway 22 connecting Rio Negro and Neuquén provinces. The National Gendarmery (militarized police) forcibly opened the bridge to traffic in what turned into a violent confrontation with the teachers. As a result the conflict became nationalized, and the residents of Cutral Cò and Plaza Huincul went out once again. Initially they took over the town in support of the teachers, but their demands quickly turned toward solutions to the unemployment problem in the area. Groups of young men from the townships, learning from the teachers, set up barricades on the highways connecting most of the province. To differentiate themselves from the earlier piqueteros, who were regarded as having sold out to the provincial governor, they called themselves fogoneros, after the fires (fogones) set near the barricades. After several days, the governor sent the Gendarmery to clear the highways. The result was a violent battle between 400 Gendarmes and 100 youths armed with slings and sticks, which ended in the death of a woman.

The fogoneros were youths between ages14 and 20, who numbered no more than 100. They did not accept a leadership role, and had no easily recognizable ideology beyond repudiating politicians, government functionaries, and trade union leaders. Though they sent representatives to the coordinating committee they rarely participated in town meetings. At the same time, the rest of the population was mobilized through the asamblea popular (people's assembly). People participated directly in these asambleas or else through elected representatives. In addition, both town notables and local politicians (councilpersons and legislators) also participated. These meetings voiced the demands of the townspeople. These were: immediate relief for the area through 1,200 new jobs, three year contracts for former employees of the now privatized YPF and of the State Gas Company, a tax moratorium; then, area subsidies from the national government, and tax exemptions to new businesses in the towns; and in the long term, investment in the YPF refinery in the area and a sales tax exemption. The provincial government granted its support for the demands, and on April 19, after several days of tension and violent confrontations, the asamblea popular voted to accept the national government's commitment to fulfill the immediate demands and to jointly study all the others. The fogoneros, who fully participated in the asamblea for the first time opposed the deal on the ground that the government had not kept the promises made in 1996. However, the majority, led by local politicians and town notables, felt that the conflict had reached an impasse and that it was necessary to seek a negotiated solution. By the end of October no definite solution had been found, and the area remained in a state of latent upheaval.

Instead of fragmenting, the community struggled in 1996, and went out again in 1997 in support of the teachers. In spite of widespread poverty and hunger, wider solidarity still existed. But, at the same time, once the 1997 struggle became locally oriented, the people of Cutral Cò demanded (among other things) that the provincial Council for Education be moved to their area as a source of jobs, while reducing employment in Neuquén city. Though this demand was finally abandoned, the fact that the townspeople thought about it shows an increase in tension between communities; that it was not upheld seems to demonstrate that, for now, overarching solidarity is still stronger than local interests. In this sense, the Cutral Cò and Plaza Huincul conflict have contradictory readings. On the one hand, faced with extreme poverty the townspeople mobilized in order to seek immediate relief. In this sense they were successful since the national government granted 500 jobs through a program called Plan Trabajar, as well as several million dollars in relief funds granted to the area. However, these jobs pay wages of 150 to 200 dollars a month, approximately one-eighth of what official sources estimate is a basic income level for a family of four.

Though the number of jobs granted was less than half of those demanded, at the same time it meant that 500 families had work. This last aspect is important. The unemployed of Cutral Cò were vehement in demanding jobs, not charity, linking need with dignity and expressing an interesting level of collective consciousness. In addition, the asamblea popular was a form of popular democracy which contrasted favorably with the formal democracy promoted by the government. Still, the control of the asamblea was always firmly held in the hands of the elite --both politicians and town notables. Thus, though it carried an implicit questioning of the current political system, it was not a break with the power structure. Though the fogoneros, as the most combative sector of the townspeople, had the sympathy (and sometimes the support) of many of their neighbors they did not constitute a political alternative to the traditional leadership. That was because most of them were too young to be family heads, and many were seen as too extremist to be representative. The majority of the townspeople seemed to have been very conscious that, though the power elite was not to be trusted, they had to negotiate since there were slim possibilities that one locality could overturn what was seen as an unfavorable correlation of forces on the national level. Though the residents had enough sympathy with the intransigence of the fogoneros to waver in the asamblea that decided to negotiate, they were also conscious that the goal was immediate relief for the area. In this sense, faced with a political system that has proven impermeable to popular demands the townspeople turned to the streets as the only way to make their needs felt and obtain a response. This type of possibilism is not, in and of itself, wrong. Faced with the lack of alternatives, people search for ways to survive: in other words they struggle to win, not to die.

THIS TYPE OF STRUGGLE, LIMITED AS IT IS, EXPRESSES AND CAUSES CHANGES. The experience of popular participation and power gives a heady feeling and raises new questions and needs in peoples' minds. Perhaps the most noticeable thing that resulted from both, 1996 and 1997, conflicts at Cutral Cò is that the experience and forms of struggle quickly spread throughout Argentina. Just as the townspeople learned from the teachers that blockading a highway was an effective means of generating government response, others learned from them. From Buenos Aires, to the North, and to Patagonia, dozens of highways were blockaded by people demanding relief and government attention. A good example of this happened in the town of Rio Cuarto, in Còrdoba Province. On May 29, 1997, representatives of the shanty town dwellers met with the Rio Cuarto Unemployed Committee and with the Asociaciún de Trabajadores del Estado (State Employees Union) to organize a blockade of the main highway into the town. About an hour after the meeting started, the town mayor showed up and offered 200 jobs on the Plan Trabajar on the condition that they would not carry out their plans. Since the goal of the blockade was to elicit government response, the participants accepted and the blockade was not carried out (El Puntal, May 30, 1997). It is interesting to note that both members of the Communist Party and of the independent left Patria Libre organization participated in the meeting. However, their role seems to have been as observers while the leadership remained firmly in the hands of the shanty town and unemployed representatives.

One of the main elements that has forced the State to negotiate with rioters and blockaders is their collective willingness to confront security forces. In most upheavals, people, when faced with repression have fought the police instead of backing down. That is why in late March 1997 members of the Rio Negro provincial government were armed by the police to "insure their protection from social danger" (Clarin, March 27, 1997). An example of this "social danger" happened across the river from Rio Negro, in the city of Neuquén, on October 9, 1997. That day the provincial legislature voted to reduce the salaries of public employees and provincial teachers. Called by their respective labor unions, 600 demonstrators vented their anger in front of the legislature by throwing stones, breaking a few windows, and shouting epithets. The police intervened to clear the streets and chased the demonstrators into the center of town where they were joined by several hundred persons. Workers and neighbors charged the police. While the battle was going on, groups of unemployed sacked a supermarket and a store owned by Daniel Scioli, a prominent Buenos Aires Peronist politician. The result was over 50 arrests plus a score of wounded policemen (Clarin, October 10, 1997).

The rebellions of the 1990s have had their specificity and also their commonality. They were clearly the product of neoconservative market economic policies, and of a limited democracy. Hunger, unemployment, marginality, the impossibility of obtaining redress from elected representatives, the lack of a viable justice system are the most immediate causes. As James Petras pointed out, this does not represent the failure of neoconservative policies, but rather their success: they are a product designed by the ruling class. This is why, though the increase in social conflict was there to be seen, the government chose to increase its security forces, rather than modify any aspect of its social and economic policies. This does not mean that Carlos Menem and his advisors want social conflict, but rather that they believe it is an expression of dysfunctional sectors of society which have been unable to readjust to the new Argentina. In their eyes, the government is carrying out a transformation which is essential; and in all transformations some sacrifices are necessary.

BENEATH THE ORGANIZED LEFT THERE IS A BROAD, but very atomized, resistance movement. The combination of popular expectations in parliamentary politics and the weakness, and confusion, of the Left means that most of these struggles do not come together into anything even remotely resembling a political alternative. However, these movements are slowly and hesitantly developing new forms of organization and struggle. Over the past seven years a myriad of women's groups, unemployed committees, student organizations, and gay groups have either come into being or become more active. It is interesting to note that cultural and sports activities have become transformed as a vehicle for social and political organizing. Local radio and theater groups have served as a channel for community protest or for just keeping people together. A good example are neighborhood football clubs in the working class suburbs of Buenos Aires. Parents organize these clubs in order to keep their children away from drugs and gangs. The clubs quickly develop commissions that are elected by the members whose role is to organize matches, obtain or build a clubhouse, and get rights to a piece of land for a playing field. The commissions serve as a locus of neighborhood organizing and, eventually, for political activity such as petitioning local authorities. Some of these clubs have become increasingly politicized and serve as a basis for organizing the opposition to government policies in the neighborhood.

One of the potentially more interesting forms of organization is the Congreso de los Trabajadores Argentinos (Congress of Argentine Workers: CTA). Organized by the State employees (ATE), the teachers' union (CTERA), as well several smaller unions, and other union locals, the CTA is trying to develop a new form of trade unionism, more in tune with what Kim Moody has called "social-movement unionism." Though many of these changes are more discursive than substantial, the main changes applied by the CTA deal with organization. Workers can now affiliate directly with the confederation without belonging to a specific union, or even without being employed. In addition, CTA leaders are elected by the vote of the members, and not of the affiliated union representatives. Finally, the CTA perceives of union activism as something that links both on the job and neighborhood organizing, together with coordination with unions in the nations of Latin America's southern cone. Unfortunately, the CTA has not democratized the structure of its member unions; it has a strong bureaucratic aspect which is the main obstacle to its development as alternative unionism. For example, in CTERA, one of the mainstays of the CTA, rank and file dissidence is heavily repressed, and the union leadership has struck several deals with the Menem government opposed by the membership (for instance, support for the new Education Law that significantly increases the teachers' work load). The CTA links left militants, with rank and file activists, with old fashioned bureaucrats, giving it a fragmented and contradictory existence. In some areas of Argentina the CTA has very hesitantly become an opposition pole to neoconservatism, while in others it is to the right of the CGT unions. Because of its contradictory nature it has not yet become an alternative to the pro-government CGT. Still, for the first time in 30 years there are two clearly defined and legal labor confederations in Argentina. Together with several dissident CGT unions (the steelworkers and the teamster-led MTA grouping (Argentine Workers' Movement), and the small and left-led May 1st Trade Union Coalition, the CTA carried out a general strike on August 14, 1997. In spite of government harassment, and the strict neutrality by the opposition UCR-FREPASO Alliance,* about 40 percent of wage earners supported the strike, definitively breaking the labor monopoly of the CGT. The general strike was particularly strong in the provinces, and less so in Buenos Aires. In addition, more than 20 national highways were blockaded in support of the strike, and there were violent confrontations with the police in cities like La Plata, Rosario, and Cordoba, as well as in Cutral Cò.

Another interesting development is the increased organization and participation of Argentina's small native American community. There were several demonstrations by the mapuche community between 1992 and 1996 denouncing Amerindian massacres, their exclusion from national history textbooks, and demanding things such as the return of community lands. In the province of Salta, the colla community has been carrying on a struggle, over several months, in defense of their lands. These lands had been, finally, granted to the collas in 1989 by the provincial governor. However, a few years later, the Seabort Corporation bought, from the former owners, the rights to 79,000 hectares of these lands and applied to the government to expel the collas. In late June 1997, the community blockaded the highways and effectively besieged the Seabort employees sent to take over the land. Between July and October the provincial police made several unsuccessful violent efforts to open the highways and expel the collas, who resisted (Clarin, July 1, 1997). A few months later, the mapuche community in Patagonia started a struggle against the Italian Bennetton Corporation; the biggest land-owner in the region. The mapuches were denouncing low wages, discrimination, and the abridgment of their ancestral rights by the Italian corporation (Clarin, March 14, 1998). The actions by the mapuches and the collas have surprised the government because of the level of organization and their politicization.

Altogether, between March and December 1997 the Argentine press reported several dozen labor actions, some 50 instances of rioting (albeit some very minor), close to 100 highways being blockaded, two strikes by farmers, two nationwide strikes by teachers, the general strike carried out by the CTA, and 21 cases of violent confrontations between demonstrators and the police and Gendarmery resulting in hundreds of arrests, many wounded and one dead person.

ALL OF THESE ACTIONS ARE A FAR CRY FROM CONSTITUTING an alternative to the present neoconservative policies. However, this resistance is sufficient to worry the government. By the end of May 1997, government officials were asking business to help out with the social situation. But most of the businessmen remained clearly unconcerned; the management of the privatized YPF company said: "unemployment is the government's problem, not ours" (Clarin, May 16, 1997). A supermarket chain ratified what YPF said and backed it with actions: it instituted a practice whereby once a week one of their employees was chosen to be laid-off through a lottery (Clarin, April 11, 1997). Perhaps because of this, the Catholic Church has sounded the alarm stating that the current social situation is giving rise to violence and the danger of having the state lose its legitimacy. Faced with an increasingly violent social situation, on the one hand, and with employer intransigence, on the other, Menem and Argentina's political leadership have no other recourse than repression. The Left has been accused of trying to destabilize Argentina. Organizations such as Quebracho, Corriente Patria Libre, and the Partido Obrero have been accused of being behind most riots and blockades (see Clarin, May 29, 1997). To accept this notion not only means granting these organizations a size and influence they clearly do not have, but it also implies a level of coordination between different conflicts that has escaped most analysts. But this has been the rationale behind the government's spending increasing amounts of money to improve and enlarge the security forces. According to the daily Clarin, by December 1995 the only area of government that had increased its overall number of employees was the security and Armed Forces, which reached a total of 60 percent all state employees (Clarin, December 9, 1995). It should be pointed out that this number represents the "public" members of the security forces. If we take into account the numerous members of the intelligence community as well as the undercover security teams and police informers, the overall percentage goes up. The Ministry of Economics, Informe (1996: 56) reported that employment in "Public Administration, Defense, and Social Services" had increased 15.5 percent, the second highest after "Agriculture." The Chief of the General Staff, General Martìn Balza specified at a conference at the University of Palermo (October 23, 1997) that the "new mission" of the Army included opening blockaded highways, in a clear reference to the continued role of the Armed Forces as an element of social control. In addition, as stated in the beginning of this article, harassment and persecution of Left activists has increased significantly over the past three years, as has government surveillance over the population in general. In addition, the economic program is already showing signs that its transnationalization has made it more, not less, vulnerable to economic cycles. Of course this does not imply that a political alternative will emerge. As stated before the Left is in disarray, while the Right has joined Menemism. What it does mean is that Argentine politics are in a state of flux and transition.

IN THE OCTOBER 1997 BY-ELECTIONS, THE GOVERNMENT WAS SOUNDLY DEFEATED 45.67 percent to 36.15 percent nationally. The UCR-FREPASO Alliance emerged victorious, almost unexpectedly. However, the blank and void ballots were the third largest political choice, accounting for 6 percent of the total, and an estimated 30 percent of the electorate abstained. In Cordoba province over 5,000 votes were cast for "Silvio", a monkey in the local zoo. Even in the case of Governor Duhalde's manzaneras (paid block activists) the "new" politics has had an impact. Many manzaneras in the poorest neighborhoods and shanty towns voted for the opposition. They perceived a shift in both voting trends and the support of the economic power groups away from the governing Peronists: the costs of bucking the government went down while the possible benefit of switching allegiances in time went up. Not only was Menem now perceived as inefficient and corrupt, but also as unable to control social conflict. Is this a measure of success or of failure of Argentina's newly-found democratic system? Most ballots cast for the opposition were really negative votes, and it is questionable how many people feel represented by the UCR-FREPASO Alliance. Blank ballots and the abstention rate remain high at about 30 percent of the total. Still, voting shows a desire to participate and make one's voice heard. Riots, blockades, strikes, blank ballots and voting for the opposition all seem to be forms of political participation in the search for a political alternative to neoconservatism. But at the same time transnationalization of the economy has made the bourgeoisie less, not more, responsive to social upheaval. In addition, the changes in the political system reflect these new realities giving birth to an electoral system that is hardly democratic. It is therefore likely that popular political participation in Argentina will increasingly be channeled through many different, and often violent, forms of expression.

* The UCR (Radical Civic Union) is a center-right group. FREPASO (Front for a Solidarity Country) is a coalition of Peronists, leftists, and several branches of the Socialist Party. They formed an alliance for the 1997 and appear to be continuing that alliance for the 1999 presidential elections. return

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